One Icon, Two Movies: Can Hollywood Do Right by Nina Simone?

The singer is the subject of a forthcoming documentary and a biopic, but the portrayal of her in the latter is causing more controversy than celebration.

Nina Simone. (Photo: David Redfern/Getty Images)

Jan 27, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Jennifer Swann is TakePart’s culture and lifestyle reporter.

From casting choices to screenplays, biopics are notoriously difficult to make. But what happens when a biopic is released around the time of a documentary on the same subject?

Such is the case with two new movies about Nina Simone, the iconic singer and civil rights activist who is finally getting her due on the big screen, more than a decade after her death. The films, both slated for release in 2015, are getting markedly different receptions.

Director Liz Garbus' documentary What Happened, Miss Simone?, which premiered this week at the Sundance Film Festival, is garnering acclaim for its accurate, complex portrayal of the troubled artist and political revolutionary. The Simone biopic Nina, on the other hand, has been widely criticized for controversial casting that requires half-Dominican, half–Puerto Rican actor Zoe Saldana to wear dark makeup, an Afro wig, and a prosthetic that widens her nose.

Meanwhile, What Happened, Miss Simone? relies on archival concert footage and intimate interviews with Simone's close friends and collaborators. It's been authorized by Simone's family, unlike Nina, and daughter Lisa Simone served as executive producer. The Netflix documentary also received support from Common, Erykah Badu, and Aloe Blacc, who performed a tribute concert to the high priestess of soul at Sundance on Sunday night.

"She was kind of in a little bit of a music bubble until the mid-'60s after the Birmingham church bombing, when four little girls were killed," Garbus told reporters over the weekend at Sundance. "Her whole life changed, and she decided that [civil rights] was what she was going to dedicate the rest of her life to."

Garbus, who is not black, acknowledged that she had to be particularly mindful of the experiences that Simone had as an African American in the 1960s. "I think there are all different ways that we can relate to each other, and I hope I did her justice," she said.

The 1963 church bombing Garbus was referring to was recently dramatized in the opening scene of another biopic about an African American leader: Selma. It, too, was directed by a woman, but Ava DuVernay didn't receive access to Martin Luther King, Jr.'s speeches—which are owned by his estate—whereas Garbus was able to use Simone's songs and performances.

Following King's assassination in 1968, Simone wrote the elegy "Why (the King of Love Is Dead)," and eventually left America "because she was so depressed about the state of civil rights in America," Garbus said.

When the idea for a movie about the singer's life was conceived in the early 1990s, Simone signed off on Whoopi Goldberg in the lead role. That movie never came to fruition. So when the title role in Nina went to lighter-skinned Saldana—rather than Mary J. Blige, who initially had been attached—the backlash against her caricature-like portrayal immediately followed.

In an interview with Monarch magazine, Saldana brushed off the controversy, saying that it was "a minute problem against the problems we face just as women versus men, in a world that's more geared and designed to cater towards the male species."

That Simone sang about how her "brown skin" and "woolly hair" defined her identity is just one reason why fans were outraged by Saldana's casting. Many Simone fans—including the singer India Arie—likened the costuming choices to blackface.

"As hard as Nina had to fight for what she wanted because she was black and looked the way she did, this looks like a parody," Arie wrote on Simone's website. "It feels out of place with what Nina Simone means in an African American historical context."

Even Nina director Cynthia Mort is reportedly unhappy with the way the movie turned out, according to a behind-the-scenes legal drama. The lawsuit she filed against the movie's production company last May alleges that it breached the terms of her director deal.

By comparison, What Happened, Miss Simone? appears to have gotten Simone right: by allowing the real singer to speak (and sing) for herself, in a series of moving performances. The only drama surrounding the film's release is that of the incredible pain and suffering that plagued Simone's life.